First Person

Common English And Its “Domain-Specific” Vocabulary

From middle school on, English teachers spend tons of time teaching what are now called “literary elements.” When I was a kid, we called them “literary devices,” which I think is a better term for things like metaphor, imagery, onomatopoeia: the devices that writers use to create literature. Whatever you call them, these devices are the foundation of a solid English education.

When I teach “Of Mice and Men,” the class spends a lot of time talking about imagery. When I teach “Romeo and Juliet,” we talk about metaphor. And when we finally get around to poetry, we talk about alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and all the other specialized devices that elevate separate great literature from office memos.

There are always students who ask, “Why do we need to learn this stuff?” They say that nobody’s ever going to approach them on the street and ask them to clarify the difference between simile and metaphor; no job interviewer will ever ask them what they know about assonance. These students are probably right. Unless they become English teachers, having a thorough understanding of literary devices will not help these students make money. The truth is, we don’t teach literary elements because students are likely to use them in the workplace. (The same could be said, by the way, of calculus, chemistry, and American history.) We teach them because they are the building blocks of literature, and of all sophisticated writing. Without understanding these elements, students can’t discuss reading or writing with any authority; without understanding these elements, those students who want to become writers will lack many of the tools necessary to create great writing.

As far as the folks behind the Common Core standards are concerned, that’s just fine. Thanks to the Common Core, this year a series of “Shifts in ELA/Literacy” will be imposed upon English teachers across the country. These shifts require, among other things, that English teachers spend less time on “esoteric literary terms … such as ‘onomatopoeia’ or ‘homonym’” and more time on “pivotal and commonly found words…such as ‘discourse,’ ‘generation,’ ‘theory,’ and ‘principled.’” It’s worth noting that not one of the terms identified as “pivotal” under these common core shifts is specific to the discipline of English. This is particularly interesting given the Common Core’s insistence on “domain-specific” vocabulary.

Why do the folks behind the Common Core think domain-specific vocabulary isn’t important when it comes to English? Again, the language used to describe the new Common Core approach highlights the ways that these standards will change the goal of English study from understanding and mastery of literature and literary writing to “constantly build[ing] students’ ability to access more complex texts across the content areas.” In other words, the goal of English class will become helping students read texts for their other subject areas — the ones that really matter, like math.

Contrast the mandated shifts in English curricula to the Common Core “Shifts in Mathematics.” In math, under the Common Core, teachers are instructed to “teach more than ‘how to get the answer’ and instead support students’ ability to access concepts from a number of perspectives.” In math, the goal is that “students demonstrate deep conceptual understanding of core math concepts by applying them to new situations, as well as writing and speaking about their understanding.”

I have to be honest: that sounds awesome. It’s exactly what the goal should be for English class: deep conceptual understanding of core literary concepts. In order to gain such a deep understanding though, students must first master the elements that make up literature. Unfortunately, the folks behind the Common Core have made it abundantly clear that they see little value in having students understand literature. Over and over again, Common Core advocates have promoted teaching “informational texts” over literature. According to the Common Core, more than 50 percent of high school English curricula are supposed to consist of informational texts. By 12th grade, the Common Core recommends that 70 percent of the texts students read in English be informational, not literary. In other words, the more advanced students get in English, the less specialized their knowledge will become.

How will this affect me in the classroom? For starters, it will be deadly boring. Pulling information out of a text is not a high school-level skill. Indeed, according to basic literacy theory, “reading to learn new information” is a skill that should be mastered from ages 8 to 14. In high school, we should be focusing on moving students past basic comprehension (recommended by the Common Core) towards viewing texts from multiple perspectives, and then eventually towards constructing their own critical perspectives on these texts.

“Informational texts” provide few opportunities for such high-level thought. They are written at a basic level for a basic purpose— to convey information. This is why teaching literature is so essential. When my students read “Romeo and Juliet,” they have to gather information: plot points, character traits, and characteristics of setting are all forms of information that students must gather from literary texts. That information gathering, however, is not the goal of our study. The goal, ultimately, is to have students understand how Shakespeare uses language to provoke a variety of reactions in his readers. How does he use imagery to convey his characters’ emotional states? How does he use dramatic irony to heighten the audience’s interest? How can we use Shakespeare’s methods in our own writing? How do great writers use language to convey complex ideas and manipulate their readers?

We can approach these complex questions through “Romeo and Juliet” because Romeo and Juliet is literature; it is complex writing that operates on many levels simultaneously in order to transcend the limits of language and provoke complex reactions in its readers. As such, literature demands far more of its readers than do “informational texts.” Along with that, it offers far greater rewards.

Under the Common Core, English teachers are told that for every unit we spend on “The House on Mango Street,” we must spend another on texts that are less rich and less complex. We are instructed not to teach the literary elements that make deep, complex writing possible. In the end, we are required to emphasize the most basic and superficial aspect of written communication — the simple transmission of information — at the expense of all the elements that make students want to read “The Hunger Games rather than watch reality television. When, after pulling a fact out of an informational text for the umpteenth time, students ask me that old question, “Why do we have to do this?”, I don’t know what I’ll say. It just doesn’t make any sense.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.